Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Philadelphia's Poison Ring


Maria Favato was the next member of the media-dubbed Poison Ring to go to trial.  However, in a shocking move, she halted her own trial and pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, which included both her stepson and her own husband.

Woman Poisoner Confesses at Trial, blared The New York Times on April 22, 1939.  Included within the article were excerpts of Marias unexpected confession.  I might just as well get it over with, she said.  Let them send me to the chair.  What have I got to live for?" 

Shortly after Marias change in plea, Herman Petrillo, in an effort to escape the electric chair, agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.  By May 21, 1939, 21 arrests were made in connection with the poison ring.  As the investigation continued, detectives discovered that Herman Petrillo and Bolber ran a matrimonial agency, which was apparently created in order to find new husbands for widows of their victims.  Upon finding a new mate, the widows would marry and then take out life insurance policies on their new spouses.  Afterwards, it was up to the members of the ring to do away with the insured and collect the money.

On May 25, 1939, Morris Bolber pled guilty to murder, possibly hoping that his plea would earn him a lesser sentence.  His plan worked and he was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.   A few months later, in September 1939, Paul Petrillo also pled guilty.  Nevertheless, Paul was not quite as lucky as Bolber and was sentenced to die in the electric chair.  The last major player in the poison ring, Rose Carina, the media-dubbed Rose of Death, was found not guilty following a brief jury trial.

Rose Carina
Rose Carina (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
In the end, 13 men and women besides Bolber and the Petrillos were either convicted of or pled guilty to first-degree murder.  All of these convicted killers served long sentences, the shortest being not less than 14 years in prison. 

On March 31, 1941, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania electrocuted Paul Petrillo.  Seven months later, on October 20, 1941, Herman Petrillo met with the same fate.  Thirteen years later, on February 15, 1954, Morris Bolber died of natural causes while awaiting his third parole petition.

Following the poison ring trials, District Attorney Vincent McDevitt went on to build a solid and lucrative career.  He finally left public service in 1947, and later became vice president of the Philadelphia Electric Company.

It is interesting to note that many written accounts of the poison ring mention witchcraft and describe the Petrillos and Morris Bolber as witchdoctors or cult leaders.  However, these allegations hold little merit and were probably invented by reporters of the time.  The sole purpose of the poison ring was money, obtained by means of murder and insurance fraud.  It was later estimated that the group netted at least $100,000 prior to the arrest of its members.

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